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Why Cons Are Still Important

I spent the first part of last week at the Massachusetts Library Association’s 2019 conference. (Theme: Big Top? Circus sideshow? The Best Job On Earth! Could have used more jugglers, but nobody asked me, so.) I know a lot of people who skipped this one, citing an anemic program lineup. Granted, there were no jugglers, but otherwise, I actually found this to be far from the truth.

This is the first con where I actually attended the MLA catch-up session, where you get to meet your association governance. That meant that I finally had a chance to start divvying names between MLA, MLS, and MBLC. Not to mention NELA. I’ll be honest: I have always had trouble figuring out which of these guys does the big budget. (MBLC, I think.) I know MBLC provides a lot of statewide databases, like Gale, that most libraries couldn’t dream of having otherwise. MLS provides a lot of ebooks. However, the fact remains that if you’re going to be a good librarian in Massachusetts, you’ve got to know…

  • MLA
  • NELA
  • PLA
  • ALA

And if you want to get into library politics (GOD BLESS YOU) you’ll need to associate with and/or work for…

  • MLS
  • MBLC

I briefly worked with the Air Force as a contractor librarian and during that moment I got fairly comfortable with alphabet soup. However, libraryland puts the military to shame. It doesn’t help that everybody hops around jobs, shares tasks, and generally herd-of-cats it up with the best of them.

So it was good to have a chance to kind of sort that out a bit. I can’t say I’m now an expert per se in MBLC vs. MLS. What I mainly took away from that session was that there used to be way more of these groups. MA used to have something north of a dozen library organizations in the state. Apparently, 2008 leveled them like wheat before the scythe, and every org that survived had to consolidate and downsize dramatically to survive. They’re only now recovering.

I was just going into library school in 2008. In fact, I graduated from SUNY Binghamton in December of 2007 and merrily took out a shipload of high-interest PLUS loans in preparation for the lucrative library career upon which I was about to embark. Of course, as soon as I’d signed the final paper, the economy crashed. No joke, everything went to hell literally the week after I’d finalized the loans. At the time this seemed very lame to me, but of course it was nothing compared to what happened to people who lost their retirements, houses, jobs, and livelihoods. Learning about how the Great Recession impacted libraries and their representatives is also quite sobering.

We live in a boom-bust economy. I’m too young and uneducated to know if Naomi Klein is right about this aggressive, low-oversight, take-no-prisoners version of T-Rex capitalism is a recent Regan-era phenomenon. However, there does seem to be a constant cycle of economic destruction and rebirth going on, and while it might be spectacular to watch from a penthouse (maybe? Someone must want this, right?), us little people are getting burned again and again.

What I hear now is that the same exact thing won’t happen again. Not sure whether this is accurate, but how would I know either way? I’m no economist. My point is that busts seem pretty inevitable in our model. Several have happened in my lifetime. Some were big, some were small, some were probably avoidable or predictable, but not by me. or anyone I know. They’re essentially like earthquakes. We seem to live on an economic fault line.

Libraries are one of the last social institutions that give people stuff for free, and when the power/Internet goes out at home, we’re where people come to look for jobs, freelance, and do whatever they have to do to get their lives together. Because we have Internet, and without Internet, you don’t have nothin’. So when the earthquake strikes again, it makes sense that we’d be good first responders. It’s time for us to stop being surprised when the economy goes to hell, because it seems to do that. Barring some major change in our economic model – and who are we kidding, even in the face of looming ecological disaster our model stubbornly refuses to give an inch – another crash seems like more a matter of time than anything else.

Whether bracing for it means somehow putting money aside, having a contingency plan for staffing, or just networking enough to know how we might be able to share material resources in a crunch will have to be situationally determined by each library and each org. Lord knows I’m not in administration, but I’m aware that each situation in libraries and in associations is essentially unique. This is bad because we can’t formulate a single cohesive plan and great because heterogeneous systems tend to be more resilient. I am of two minds about the library herd-of-cats effect, but that’s a topic for another post.

Second, we need to focus on mobile, material tech outreach. That could benefit our current low-income and struggling patrons now, but during the next downturn it could also benefit people who currently don’t consider the library at all. Promo seems like low-hanging fruit, but of course the traditional billboard costs money. I advocate showing up at farmer’s markets with free wifi and a couple of computers, stationing a librarian at the mall for on-the-spot Libby demos, and going into the schools with flyers listing the free stuff you can get at the library. If I had my druthers, I’d see every library with ten circulating hotspots. Would that the budget gods made that possible for all of us.

Library associations also need to start pushing tech outreach as a major duty of public libraries. Grants can help publics get into the information literacy groove. Talent clearinghouses can dig up librarians who know everything from web design to auto repair, so it might be a good idea to start building those. Your website and bookmobile are guaranteed to break down at the worst moment.

Most of all, more librarians need to get involved in and aware of the alphabet soup. It’s not about career advancement and it’s not about politics. It’s about maintaining the budget if the economy crashes, about keeping MLS in the black by any means necessary, and generally maintaining the integrity of the profession if something bad happens. Just being aware of the associations and systems and boards brings more talent to bear on a potential problem. More talent is more joy and a more resilient professional ecosystem.

No matter how we do it, we need to get ready for another economic dip. We need to be ready to catch our patrons when they start to slip out of the middle class. We also need to make sure that our orgs, who do amazing things for our radical little socialist outposts, don’t go under if 2008 ever happens again.

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Sustainability On A Budget In 2019

Welcome to 2019! If you found yourself daunted by the state of the environment in 2018, then now’s your chance to do something about it.

I could tell you that buying green will help – organic food, biodegradable soaps, electric vehicles, stuff like that – and it might, a little. But let’s face it: a lot of green consumer activism is only available to people who can afford it. What good is ethically sourced chocolate if your budget only has room for conventional beans?

beans in jars on a canvas background

Take that problem one step further. If only a few people can afford to buy solar panels and things like that, then there can be no change until everybody’s financially stable. As nice as that would be, economists have been working on total financial equality for thousands of years and we’re still not there. Since climate change is an immediate issue, the only real ground-level solutions attainable by individual people have to meet some qualifiers:

  1. The solution doesn’t require a huge up-front financial investment
  2. The solution doesn’t exclude any economic or cultural group
  3. The solution doesn’t make anybody rich

Tricky, right? Luckily, there are a few ways that you can effectively decrease your footprint without breaking the budget or excluding people with smaller purses than yours.

Share, donate, thrift, repair, and reuse

clothing hanging on a rack at a thrift store

I recently wrote an article about consumerism and how it relates to climate change. Here’s a summary: you can’t have eternal stuff on a finite planet. In addition to disposable cutlery that’s basically made to be waste, even objects that we consider permanent fixtures in our lives tend to have short lifespans. For example, the electronics industry assumes that you’ll toss your smartphone every two years, partially because it thinks you’re going to want a fancier, flashier, hipper device.

The same goes for furniture. Nothing against Ikea, whose sustainability plan is laudable, but the presence of cheap chairs on the market makes periodic upgrades tempting. Manufacture of that stuff, from the screws that hold it together to the wood that gets logged and processed with diesel-powered equipment, is still generally carbon-heavy. That’s easy to overlook that when the company wants to soothe your concerns about its environmental friendliness.

So don’t buy it! I’m not saying you should abstain from buying everything – you can’t, please don’t try – but by reducing the amount you shop, you’ll reduce your footprint. If you can get a bunch of friends together and pledge to reduce unnecessary spending, you’ll be on your way.

Here’s where things get interesting. The amount of spending that’s really necessary for your life to remain happy and healthy is actually far smaller than you’d think. For example, think of your closet. You have all kinds of stuff in there that you don’t want to wear anymore, not because it’s worn out, but because you’re sick of looking at it. But you’re not sick of looking at your friends’ clothing.

They feel exactly the same way.

Websites like Freecycle and the Buy Nothing Project let you trade stuff you don’t want and get stuff you do. My hometown of Salem even holds regular clothing and book swaps that draw hundreds of people. It also supports a repair cafe where you can bring busted household gadgets. All of these projects are run by regular people who, as far as I know, get zero dollars and zero cents for this work. They do, however, end up with great wardrobes, regular turnover in literature, and some fully functional household gadgets that might otherwise have ended up in the trash. They save money and they save the Earth.

Repair and share operations also benefit low-income people. If you’re affluent and intend to organize an event like this, be sure and reach out to community centers and schools located in places where money is scarce. If you can forge relationships across economic boundaries, then you can start breaking those boundaries down. Together, we’re all more powerful.

When you simply must buy something, check your local thrift store. You’d be amazed at what appears there, and if you can extend the life of that merchandise, you make the manufacture and delivery of a new version a little less necessary.

Speaking of buying…

Buy local when possible

Apples being sold at a farmer's market

Nation-sized commercial operations don’t have a whole lot of incentive to change. They have an enormous base, powerful investors, and a directive to grow a certain amount every year. Converting to green supply chain technology or solar energy is a great idea in principle, but not what a conservative business manager steeped in traditionalist thinking would choose first. You and everyone you know can’t change their minds about that.

As the price of solar falls, companies like Walmart will start to default to renewable power anyway just because it’s cheaper than traditional sources. However, you don’t have time for every mega-retailer in the U.S. to come to Jesus. That’s why you need to buy local.

Local retailers are not necessarily interested in growing by the quarter. They want to be economically viable and sustainable within their communities. They’re thrifty and personally interested in what their customers want. If you and all your friends tell the owner of your corner store that you want that store to run on renewable power, they might just listen. Even if the business itself doesn’t have brick and mortar solar options, there are ways to buy renewable energy from solar and wind farms.

There are other ways of buying local that get even more creative. CSAs, for example, are often very economical – I use Farm Direct Coop and spend less than $500 on food for the entire summer. There are usually aid programs in case you can’t afford the membership price and backup systems if you can’t pick up your food on a certain day. Best of all, the food you get from a CSA is usually locally sourced and seasonal.

The same goes for farmer’s markets. These are often fairly expensive, but many accept SNAP.

Share a ride

passenger in the front seat of a car

Unless you live in New York City, you probably need a car. What a pain! In addition to being expensive, bulky wallet vampires, they’re contributing to the death of the environment. Luckily, the humble carpool mitigates this. You don’t have to get an expensive Tesla to green your commute, you just have to get some buddies! There are some great ways to find carpools online. Rideshare.org and iCarpool.com are a couple of good ones. However, if you really can’t corner anyone to ride with…

Support public transportation

People complain a lot about public transportation. It’s always late, it’s dirty, it’s slow, it’s not classy, there aren’t enough trains, the service area is limited. Know how to change all of these factors? Mass usage. If everyone rides the train, train service will improve. If residents demand a bus route along the boulevard, then that will happen. These are voteable issues, and if everyone piles onto public transit at the same time as they scream for better service, then the people in charge will have an incentive to make busses and trains more pleasant experiences.

Garden and share

Vegetables in a wooden box

Did you know that you only need a space of about 100 feet by 80 feet to support one vegetarian for a year? That’s less space than most families will consent to live in. In a lot of places, that’s the size of a backyard.

If you live in a city, like me, you’ll have a hard time finding your 800 square feet, but growing is still possible. This year, I myself rented a space of 4 feet by 6 feet for my garden from a community garden. Check out Food Not Lawns for starters on how to turn your available space into something nutritious. If it’s property value you’re worried about, then consider the beauty of the edible landscape.

Combined with our CSA, my wife and I ended up with too much produce, despite the fact that a couple of my agricultural experiments went a little haywire. We ended up giving away a ton of summer squash and we’ve still got more carrots than we know what to do with.

There’s another option too: garden on your neighbors’ lawns. I wish I could find the link that talked about this project, but a few years back, some intrepid gardeners had the bright idea of turning their neighbors’ lawns into food paradises. The neighbors were happy to get some veggies in payment and the gardeners got to grow a ton of produce for charity. If any of my readers can find the news report on these guys, comment!

Growing a Victory Garden can ease the pressure on your wallet and the Earth. A $1.75 packet of 20 tomato plant seeds is absolutely more economical than buying thirty tomatoes that had to be shipped from California. Community gardens often have donation plots that you can use if you can’t pay, and even if you don’t have time to water and weed constantly, there are tasty crops that will essentially take care of themselves until harvest time.

Become an activist

People coming together and supporting each other

Environmental damage and disaster disproportionately affect the poor. When toxic waste is to be dumped, that doesn’t happen in gated communities. When asthma-causing coal-fired power plants are planned, they’re not placed in the heart of the University district. Companies who dump chemicals into the water of poor towns would never dream of doing so in rich areas. In fact, the effects of climate change will broadly affect people who live in cheap, low-lying housing, can’t afford home insurance or emergency relocation costs, and haven’t got the political pull to make towns repair infrastructures like levees and seawalls.

If you’ve got the privilege, then becoming politically active for the environment is a great way to share that with your fellow human beings. I’ve got a post on becoming active here.

Change doesn’t just happen. It takes a collective clamor to start it and sustained, share effort to keep it going. 2019 is a fresh chance to make that change. Let’s make this a green year together.